Thursday, October 1, 2009

The First Page

Every page matters, but think about the importance of that first page. And it's not even a full page! Talk about pressure, right? Have you heard how long an agent or an editor will give a submission before deciding whether to reject it or request more material from the author? Answers vary, but I usually hear it's not long. It sounds unfair, but it isn't. Challenging for the writer, yes. Unfair, no. It actually makes sense.

When you're at a bookstore and you pick up a book by an unknown author (what most of us non-celebs start out as), how long do you give it? People buying books won't wade through forty-seven pages, waiting for the good part--not even if they happen to know an author worked really hard and is rumored to be a lovely person who nurses sick cats back to health in her spare time. We have to snag them right away, and hooking them is easier said than done. Of course, "them" = prospective agents, editors, and eventually future readers.

I've been to quite a few first page sessions at conferences and workshops where attendees' first pages were critiqued by agents, editors, and authors. When it was agents and editors doing the critiquing, they sometimes shared whether they would go on to page two if the work had been a submission.

It's interesting to hear the thought process of someone on the other side of the desk, and it's so educational. You can learn a ton from other people's mistakes and successes. If you submit your manuscript's first page and they get to it, you'll learn even more from your own. (By the way, the pages are usually presented anonymously so it's less scary.)

Here are some of the things I've heard from agents and editors in the past two years when first pages were being evaluated:

*One editor said he almost always reads beyond the first page.

*One agent said she often stops at one page.

*An editor said he sees too many stories that start out with a child being forced to spend the summer with a relative.

*One person said too many interjections create a choppy reading experience.

*One agent appreciates small details in the story.

*More than one person said to avoid starting the story with the protagonist waking up. Apparently, they see a lot of that in children's book submissions.

*Most of the editors and agents weren't wild about prologues.

*One editor said she likes a hooky opening line, but not something super bizarre.

*One editor said she stops if the protagonist is giving too much description, allowing her to see the author plotting.

I don't know if these comments are helpful without the first page samples, but I hope they are. Something nice about being there in person was gauging my own taste, imagining myself as the agent or editor being queried. Certain first pages intrigued me and told me the person who wrote them had real talent and experience. I think those things do show up on the page, and pretty quickly. That motivates me to try my hardest to make my own pages shine.

It makes sense that so many agents' submission guidelines request the first three to ten pages with the query letter, doesn't it? If I were an agent, that's what I'd do.

I went to a session at a conference where an editor who had earlier critiqued our first pages read aloud the first pages of books she'd acquired, books that are coming out this year. It was fascinating. Now I find myself paying extra close attention to the first pages of my favorite YA books. It's so inspirational. And just think...all of these books' authors started out like us, unpublished but working hard to make their dreams come true.

Do you have any first page tips?
They don't have to be for YA/children's. We're a mixed group, and I think that's cool.

By the way, I've never thanked my followers. Thank you so much for your support, good cheer, and knowledge. I learn from you here and at your own blogs. <3


Lydia Sharp said...

Page one is uber important. When I pick up a new book to read (new for me, not necessarily new to print), no matter how famous or unfamous the author is, I'll give it until the end of chapter one before I decide whether or not to continue. Most of the time, though, I've made a decision by the end of page one. When I get to the end of chapter one, my "page one" assessment is almost always the same as my "chapter one" assessment.

Your list of agent/editor comments didn't surprise me at all. Especially, "don't start with the character waking up" and "prologues aren't the greatest." I've heard those for non-YA projects as well.

Page one tips?
1) Don't start with dialogue.
2) You need description so the reader can have a good feel for where they are and what's at stake, but too much description detracts and distracts. It's a delicate balance.
3) By the time the reader turns the first page, some kind of change or hint of coming change should have been introduced, and most definitely, that change should be clear by the end of the first chapter, or there is no reason to continue.

I don't write YA, and don't read much of it either, but I do enjoy following your blog. So THANK YOU, too!

Cindy said...

I've been giving a lot of thought to first pages in the last few months. I had to punch up my first page for a submission and I just started a new WIP that is really challenging me. It's important that first page is catching and unique and really draws people in.

Those were some good tips above and helpful, thank you!

Lydia mentioned not starting with dialogue. I do this sometimes but more often not. I do feel, however, that the right first line in dialogue can be quite catching.

Lazy Writer said...

The first page is so important. I've heard many agents say that they can usually tell if they are going to request more after reading the first page. Most say they continue reading more, but that they already have on opinion. I think making the first page exceptional is critical, but of course, we should make every page exceptional. :)

Dawn VanderMeer said...

Woo-hoo! Thanks for the great tips, Lydia! :) #3 is a cool way to look at going from the Ordinary World to the Call to Adventure in the Hero's Journey. I like what you said about a hint being dropped by the time you turn the first page. I'll definitely borrow that nugget of wisdom. And thank you for being so kind!! I enjoy following your blog too.

Cindy, I totally get having to punch up a first page for a submission (whether it's for an agent, a contest, or a workshop application). I'll think my first page is great--and it allows me to get into my novel--but time, more learning, and feedback will show me ways to clean that puppy up. Regarding dialogue, I don't start with it, but I know it can be cool. I figure until I'm a master like E.B. White (oh, yeah--I dream big), I'd better play it safe. ;) Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Susan, I've heard agents say that too. And you're absolutely right: every page should be exceptional. :)

Tamika: said...

My first pages mean the most to me, because it introduces everthing about my work. I want to be intrigued from the word "Go" so I want to implement the same reaction for my reader.

Sol Stein, in his book "Stein On Writing" gives excellent examples on how to do this.

Blessings to you...

Beth said...

Hi Dawn - Thanks for stopping by my blog. This is a great post! First pages make or break books for me! I just don't have the time to mess with a book that doesn't catch me right away - unless it comes highly recommended!

Corey Schwartz said...

Great post, Dawn! Only been to one first page session and it was mostly picture books (which is hard because one typed page could actually be like six or eight spreads!)

But it is fascinating.

Travener said...

One thing agents can tell from a page or two is whether the "writer" can actually write. If they see "it's" when it should be "its" or "use to" when it should be "used to" or other egregious errors, they just stop reading. Unless whatever they're reading is so compelling they have to move on.

I did a couple of posts on the First Five [swear word] Pages and how frustrating they can be. For one thing, I see a lot of artificial hooks, especially in the genre I write, mystery/suspense. It's put there just to meet that principle of making the first five pages grab you, often without regard to the actual story that follows.

I'm more willing to let an author develop my interest if the writing style, etc., captivates me. But I think that's a bit old-fashioned of me. Oliver Twist starts off with a long-winded description of poor houses. And War and Peace starts with dialogue!

Strange Fiction said...

Great post! The first pages are a huge concern and I'm not sure what the magic formula is. When I get to revisions I plan to analyze all of the books on my shelves to recall which openings grabbed me and why...

storyqueen said...

I have a difficulty with first pages.

It's a struggle for me, because even when I write and rewrite and rewrite, I tend to like it the first way best.

But maybe I'm just afraid to let it go.


Dawn VanderMeer said...

Tamika, thanks for coming to my blog. I don't think I've ever even heard of STEIN ON WRITING. I just Googled it, and it looks good!

Beth, you're welcome. I've seen your comments on some of the blogs I go to, so I wanted to visit you. First pages are often one of the things I look at while shopping for books, especially if I'm not going with something "safe" / recommended. Thanks for visiting!

Corey, picture books are hard! I know every word counts in a novel, but not the same way that it counts in a PB. I tip my hat to you--or I would if I were wearing a hat. ;)

Travener, yeah, they're reading for so much, and those first five pages can be such a telling sample. I've heard agents and editors warn about artificial hooks, too, now that you mention it. Thanks for bringing that up--that's a good one! I'm definitely more patient with the classics because, well, they're classic. I can't say I've read WAR AND PEACE. Remember my last post? ;)

D.L., if you figure out the magic formula, send it to me immediately!

Storyqueen, maybe your first way is the right way? I don't know. Sometimes I rewrite a part of a book and decide it was better the way I had it, discovering what NOT to do, which is helpful too. It's tricky, but you're definitely doing something right!

FictionGroupie said...

I wrote about this a while back. First lines and pages totally stress me out. I know that they are weighed so heavily.

Although, I understand. When I go on Public Query Slushpile and read some people's first pages, I can tell pretty quickly if someone isn't where they need to be talent wise. I'm not a professional writer yet, but I definitely am a pro reader. :)

Thanks for the tips!

Ms. Bookish said...

Great post - while reading it, I started thinking about how I react myself, as a reader, when I'm choosing a book. I have grabbed a book off the shelf because of the first line - actually, the last book that I decided to read because of that is right here on my desk. Bruce Coville's Jennifer Murdley's Toad. First line: "If Jennifer Murdley hadn't been force dto wear her brother's underpants to school, the whole thing might never have happened."

So maybe I have something to teach myself! I'm going to need to start paying attention to what openings grab me enough to make me buy or check out the book.

Dawn Maria said...

I think the most important thing to remember about first pages is to make sure you're starting your story in exactly the right spot. So many times, the real action begins two or three pages in and the beginning is descriptive exposition. So I guess I disagree with the statement that you shouldn't start with dialogue.

If I' interested in the voice, I don't care where they are or how they got there.. yet, I can wait a bit for it.